Sellers of high-grade 1959 Fleer Three Stooges cards have been "nyuk, nyuk, nyuking" all the way to the bank during the past year.
Pristine singles from this issue have fetched five figures at auction.
"The Stooges set is absolutely on fire, especially high-grade examples," said Marty Quinn, who has collected some of the best high-grade Stooges PSA Set Registry sets over the past eight years.
Kevin Mundelius, whose Stooges set was named the best vintage non-sports set on the PSA Set Registry in 2008, agrees.
"As far as non-sports cards, I don't think you can find more popular cards," he said.
Richard Cohen, owner of the Registry's top Current Finest set, shares similar sentiments.
"I understand that the Stooges set is now the most popular non-sports set," he said.
Recent DVD releases and the Stooges' continued presence on TV and YouTube helps explain their enduring popularity. Joe Verno, the proprietor of the Registry's No. 9 Current Finest set who's now in his early fifties, watched the Stooges when he was growing up. He collected his set with his teenage daughter, Sarah.
"There are people of all ages collecting the set" he said.
Alex Korittnig, who's assembled the Registry's No. 13 Current Finest set, also watched the bumbling threesome as a youngster and still tries to catch them on TV.
"I used to see them every Saturday or Sunday morning. I have a lot harder time finding them now in the last year or two," he said. "They certainly get their share of exposure. My wife can't stand them and I love them."
Unveiled just as the Stooges were beginning to appear regularly on TV, the 1959 Fleer cards feature scenes from the comedic trio's short films shown in movie theaters from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Enveloping six cards and a piece of gum, the wax packs could be purchased for five cents. Until relatively recently, these were next-to-impossible to track down, says Quinn.
"When you open a pack now, the first card will have wax on it from the seal and the last card will have a trace of gum on it, so basically you lose the last card and the first card in every pack," said Cohen.
Quinn says there are also vending boxes of these cards.
The set's first three cards – Curly (#1), Moe (#2) and Larry (#3) – highlight the most famous Stooge combination. Boasting a vertical layout, the card fronts of these initial three singles showcase bust shots. The backs exhibit biographical information.
Most of the remaining card fronts in the set feature horizontal layouts with pictures of scenes from the short films, accompanied by a one-liner describing the scene. The backs boast Stooge trivia or quotes.
A number of color variations are also evident on these cards.
"Sometimes, actual objects in the pictures are different colors," said Cohen.
These pasteboards can also be found with three different colored backs: white, cream and gray.
"White is the most sought-after because it's the cleanest looking," said Mundelius.
"The white backs seem to make a much sharper looking set, as far as the contrast is concerned," he said.
The gray backs are generally the toughest to track down in top condition.
"The quality of the paper they were printed on and the quality of the printing for the gray backs is poor," said Mundelius. "High-grade gray backs are probably the rarest of the bunch."
Despite their scarcity, however, the gray backs don't command a premium.
The most notable variations in the set, however, are the checklists that appear infrequently on the backs of cards #16, #63 and #64. Quinn notes that the checklists could only be found in the wax packs, not in vending material.
"The checklists were able to survive one print run," he said, adding that there were reportedly ink problems during the second print run.
Mundelius has also heard of printing problems.
"The checklist backs were very rare and were produced during the end printings. There are just a handful out there," he said.
In fact, so few high-grade checklists exist that Mundelius was willing to spend $75,667 to purchase a PSA MINT 9 example of each checklist (#16, #63, #64) from Quinn off eBay in June 2008.
Aside from the checklists, another card that's tough to uncover in flawless form is the Curly single (#1). This card makes no reference to the fact that Curly died in 1952 and had been replaced prior to his death by Shemp Howard. After Shemp died in 1955, Joe Besser joined the act, before Joe De Rita replaced him. The consensus is that Curly is the most popular Stooge.
"He was certainly one of the funnier Stooges. He was the one that provided the most slapstick," said Korittnig.
Quinn describes the Curly single as "the Holy Grail" of the set. This card is also often found off-center. Verno adds that the fact that it's the set's first card also makes it vulnerable to wear.
"It's the No. 1 card, which makes it difficult, because a lot of them weren't preserved," he said.
Of the 166 Curlys graded, there has yet to be a PSA GEM MT 10 example and there is just one PSA 9. A PSA NM-MT 8.5 sold for $9,334.20 in a Memory Lane auction in May 2008.
Card #33 "Let Me Know When My Number Comes Up" is another elusive single in top condition.
"The No. 33 card is extremely difficult to get centered," explained Cohen.
Of the 101 submitted, there have been three PSA 9s and one PSA 8.5. A PSA 8 sold for $1,725 on eBay in September 2008.
The set's last card "Trying the Squeeze Play" (#96) is also tough to track down in pristine condition.
"Kids used to put rubber bands around the cards, so the first and last cards were always trashed," said Korittnig.
Five PSA 9s have been uncovered, and one example sold for $2,650 on eBay in April 2008.
The most common condition issue with 1959 Stooges cards is poor centering.
"I've had people send me pack fresh cards and they're pristine with white borders and sharp corners, but they had centering problems," said Verno.
Cohen has had a similar experience.
"Centering is always the issue. You will find some cards where the edge of the scene is cut off," he said.
These condition issues, coupled with the demand for these cards and the continued popularity of the Stooges, have made this set the most popular non-sports card issue in the hobby. And with the 50th anniversary of the set and a new Three Stooges movie slated for release this fall, this set could become even more coveted.
All of this means that sellers of these cards will continue to "nyuk, nyuk, nyuk" all the way to the bank into the foreseeable future.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Mastro Auctions, Marty Quinn and Richard Cohen provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.